What the Old Dominion college football team did in 2021 was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Their top 10 returning players were all integral in their surprise success from a season ago, as ODU returns a bulk of their offense and some potential stars on defense. Hayden Wolff threw for nine touchdowns during a five-game winning streak to clinch bowl eligibility for the Monarchs last season, just a year removed from opting out and not playing a down of football in 2020.
Top 10 returning players at Old Dominion
The countdown to the regular season continues here during Pro Football Network’s Top 10 Returning Players series. We’ve crossed the country to the Sun Belt and are firmly entrenching ourselves across the southeastern portion of the country with our look into each FBS team. Looking only at players returning to their same team from a season ago — we’ll deal with transfers later –, we’re counting down all the top 10 players returning to action on every team. Here are the top returners from Old Dominion.
10) Nick Saldiveri, OT
The right side is terrific for ODU as Nick Saldiveri returns to keep his quarterback clean and his running back churning out big plays. At 6’6″ and 315 pounds, Saldiveri has prototypical size and moves better than you’d expect a man his size to move.
He’ll push defenders back in pass protection or get in front of the rushing attack with a great first step and terrific footwork. Saldiveri is one of four returning starters on the offensive line, as this unit may be one of the best in the conference.
9) Leroy Thomas, G
Of the four returning starters, the big name among that group is Leroy Thomas. ODU’s right guard continues to prove doubters wrong. He played in more snaps than anyone on offense (1,060) and was ODU’s nominee for the Burlsworth Trophy, which is given to the top former walk-on nationally. Thomas has a great anchor and strong balance through contact while also presenting as a sound blocker in space on run plays.
8) Amorie Morrison, EDGE
Perhaps one of the better edge-rushing units in the Group of FIVE returns to ODU this season, as Amore Morrison kicks off a trio of talented edge defenders. Morrison is the down lineman of the group, finding the gaps in between opposing tackle and guard combinations regularly. This unit stays fresh and brings in a ton of havoc off the edge. Morrison adds an element with his length and sound technique in each facet.
7) Marcus Haynes, EDGE
It was a toss-up at this stage between this trio, as Marcus Haynes returns to once again cause havoc with his teammates. Haynes is a big EDGE at 6’4″ and 251 pounds. He’ll rush from a stand-up position as an off-ball linebacker more than the rest, as he can utilize his great vision to find the weak spots off the edge. Haynes is a student of the game, and that’s evident as he picks and chooses his shots wisely, finishing to the tune of the team lead in sacks and tackles for loss a season ago.
6) Deeve Harris, EDGE
Deeve Harris is the final member of the terrific EDGE trio returning at ODU. Together, this trio combined for 11.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. Harris is a constant force off the line of scrimmage, using his length and speed combination to rush from a stand-up position and get home with a bevy of pressures on the season. What separates Harris from the trio is his ability to consistently win in each facet as well as his incredibly high motor.
5) Hayden Wolff, QB
It was Wolff who led the Monarchs on a five-game winning streak after taking back over in Week 7 as the team’s starter. Nine of Wolff’s 10 touchdowns came across that five-game winning streak, clinching bowl eligibility in their first season since opting out of the 2020 COVID-19 year.
At 6’5″, Wolff has terrific size and brings with him an intriguing arm. When he’s on, he can touch every level of the field, finding great success outside the numbers on deep shots. Consistency will be key for his growth in 2022, but what he showed over last season’s stretch is promising.
4) R’Tarriun Johnson, S
Taking the long way to major college football, it’s been an impressive journey for R’Tarriun Johnson. After landing as one of the top JUCO prospects, Johnson redshirted in 2019, sat out with the team in 2020, and exploded on the scene in 2021.
Johnson finished with two interceptions and six pass breakups while finishing second on the team with 91 total tackles. His ability to close space in coverage is one thing, but Johnson is a menacing force when he comes downhill against the run. He’s a sound tackler and has tremendous strength to stop any running back or even cover tight ends from an inline position or the slot.
3) Blake Watson, RB
Putting the term “bell cow” to good use, Blake Watson set the ODU program record for single-season carries a season ago. He took those 215 rushing attempts for 1,112 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 101.1 yards per game.
Most importantly, Watson presented a consistent challenge for opposing defenses to stop as he hit the 100-yard mark in five straight games and six times on the season. Watson also has a tremendous all-around ability as a pass catcher and as a kick returner, where he was named to the all-conference team back in 2019.
2) Ali Jennings III, WR
Averaging 17.4 yards per catch, Ali Jennings III is the epitome of a downfield threat. Finishing with 1,063 yards and five scores on the season, Jennings needed just 61 receptions to cross the 1,000-yard mark.
Jennings uses his tremendous size to bully defenders along his routes while presenting a challenge at both the catch point and after the catch. He spent two seasons at West Virginia prior to bursting onto the scene in a big way for the Monarchs in 2021. Jennings should be one of the best receivers in the Sun Belt this fall.
1) Zack Kuntz, TE
Standing tall, literally, above the competition, Zack Kuntz returns as ODU’s top player in 2022. Kuntz tips the charts at a whopping 6’8″ and 245 pounds and is reliable in every facet. He recorded 73 receptions a season ago, scoring five touchdowns and averaging 9.5 yards per catch.
Kuntz dominated over the middle of the field where he consistently churned out first downs and drive-extending plays left and right. He’s a sound run blocker as well as in pass protection, even if he’s hardly tasked with that. The former Penn State TE should be on everyone’s list of top 2023 NFL Draft tight ends.
Honorable mention players returning to Old Dominion in 2022
- Elijah Davis, RB
- Ryan Henry, LB
- D.J. Mack Jr., QB
- Javon Harvey, WR
- Khadere Kounta, LT
- Tyran Hunt, G